27 Aug 2019

Social media platforms need to be made accountable for the amplification of hate speech

Yair Cohen talked on Al Jazeera earlier this month about the online gaming message board 8chan, which became a haven for extremist content.

Social media platforms to be accountable for amplifying hate speech from Yair Cohen Solicitor on Vimeo.

8chan is where the suspect of the El Paso Shooting is believed to have posted a white nationalist manifesto rant. The post was shut down within minutes but was posted to numerous mainstream social media sites beforehand.

Since it’s shutdown, 8chan users have moved onto a new online gaming platform – Discord. There is a strong connection between the gaming community and extremists and social media platforms need to do a better job of policing the hate speech, since they amplify it by allowing the surface of content to their users.

Should sites like this even exist? Al Jazeera asked Yair Cohen

Yair: Whether sites like this should exist, depends very much on how far we are willing to stretch the right to free speech. Each society and country places its own limits and carries out its own balancing act. The US has The Communications Decency Act which provides discussion forum operators such as 8chan (and Discord), immunity from prosecution in relation to third party posts.

The reality is that the immunity exists, regardless of the question whether the website is being monitored or not. To remove these sorts of websites from the internet, there will need to be a change in the law in the US.

Al Jazeera: How can they be better policed and should they be shut down? 

Yair Cohen: The US government has found a creative way of policing websites such as 8chan (and Discord). They started to put pressure on public companies such as Google and Bing to completely delist links to those sites from mainstream search results. However, internet users have found ways around this ban on Google by using images which are much more difficult to identify as harmful. They post these images, with content from 8chan (now Discord) on social media networks, such as Twitter and Google Image libraries.

Al Jazeera: Do they play a significant role in instigating hate and causing scenarios such as mass shootings?

Yair Cohen: Yes. There is evidence that websites such as 8chan (and Discord) are used as breeding grounds for young extremists. Ironically, because those websites have been effectively outlawed by the mainstream search engines, they become increasingly attractive to teenagers and to anyone else who feel the need to rebel. Previous mass shooters have acquired a status of heroes amongst some extremists, who follow the murderers’ vision and mode of operation.

Al Jazeera: Does the overall acceptance of online shooting games also “normalise” shootings?

Yair Cohen: Indeed. There is clear evidence that in some instances, online gaming channels normalise extremist websites like 8chan (and Discord). This is where gamers can move on particularly violent and offending conversations whilst avoiding the risk of being banned from certain gaming platforms.

Al Jazeera: What can be done about that?

Yair Cohen: Tighter control over social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, to be able to identify mass sharing of offending images. At the same time, there are increasing calls in the US for change in the law, which could find operators of discussion forums liable to posts by their users under certain circumstances.

Freedom of speech does not exist if marginalised groups are being threatened and attacked online and offline.

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